I'm Marty Stouffer. Like every American school kid I took courses in geography. A big part of that study was devoted to the individual states. For each state the textbook showed one typical picture. California, was lush orange groves, Colorado, was snow capped peaks, Kansas was waving wheat fields and Louisiana looked like this.
I can recall the shiver of fear I felt from the illustration of dark, motionless water and spooky moss-hung trees.
At the same time, though, I also felt a strange excitement about the swamp and especially about the creatures that could live there.
I'm here today to try to find one of them. A colorful animal legend from the past and the South's largest and wildest mammal of the present.
Come along with me as I search for an intriguing phantom, the "SWAMP
TRANSITION TO TITLE / LOUISIANA SWAMP
The Southern swamps are impenetrable to a man on foot. No wonder this mysterious, magical place has given rise to so many legends. Especially about bears, the largest predators found here.
ALLIGATOR / COUGAR / SPOONBILL
But many other creatures besides bears make their home in the swamp. Many are rare, seeking refuge in a place where most people cannot go.
MARTY IN PIROGUE / ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLE
This is the Atchafalaya ["chaf-a-LIE-ya'] Basin. To walk through the swamp is to find yourself tangled in undergrowth or up to your armpits in mud. This traditional swamp boat is called a 'pirogue' [PEA-row]. It's the best way to navigate here, and to quietly approach animals like this Alligator Snapping Turtle, named for the alligator-like ridges on its back. It disappears at my approach.
The main swamp tree is the Bald Cypress. What look like stumps are called 'cypress knees' they act as breathing devices for the submerged roots.
This backwater is quite clear. Maybe I can find that big turtle. This ancient reptile is the largest fresh water turtle in the world. Its eggs are supposed to be quite a delicacy for swamp bears.
The Alligator Snapping Turtle does snap. Because of its powerful jaws, I'll have to be quick and careful. I don't want to lose a finger or a toe.
MARTY PICKS UP TURTLE
There's a certain way to pick one of these up. And it won't work with their smaller cousin, the Snapping Turtle.
This is a fairly small one, probably a female. It's plated belly, or 'plaston' [PLAS-ton] is quite hard, so I can rest it on this cypress knee.
CLOSE-UP OF TURTLE'S MOUTH AND TONGUE
Inside its powerful mouth is a two-pronged tongue, which acts like a lure. Waiting patiently on the bottom, it twitches this lure, whoops.
Well, I guess it's a bit camera shy. Maybe I can get it to open up again, if it'll just let go of this stick.
The old Creole trick of rubbing the back of its head works to open its mouth. As I was saying, this slow moving beast does not hunt prey, but twitches this pink lure to attract a fish dinner.
Its claws look formidable, but are quite harmless.
The Alligator Snapping Turtle is the only species of its kind with three ridges on its back, rather than two. These probably are vestiges of the extra plates which were found on the most primitive turtles.
As you can see, this is a turtle too big for its shell. But it can easily protect itself with its powerful jaws.
Well, that was fun. But I'm after something a bit bigger.
BLACK BEAR PLAYING WITH BRANCHES
The Black Bear, smallest and most widely distributed of our bears, is the largest animal in the South. It can weigh up to five hundred pounds. This one does not look to be the same animal which has a reputation for elusive cunning, and is the larger-than-life subject of hundreds of yarns.
Bears are solitary animals, so they often make a game of amusing themselves.
Known for their cleverness, bears use their clawed toes like fingers. Their claws are strong but dull, not sharp and pointed like a cat's. They're mostly used for climbing trees and digging up plant roots and insects.
Bears can kill humans, but almost never do. Dozens of Americans a year are killed by lightning and Bee stings. But bears, causing maybe one death a year, are what make headlines. We humans love to over-dramatize the danger of Bears.
But they're peaceful by nature. Bears won't fight unless forced into battle by a human with a pack of barking dogs.
SUPERIMPOSED MAP OF NORTH AMERICA / LOUISIANA
Swamp bears are found in these seven states. Arkansas has the most, perhaps fifteen hundred. But they're a declining species throughout most of the South. Once, Louisiana was home to thousands. Now, two or three hundred remain.
There are only about fifty left in the entire Atchafalaya ['chaf-a-LIE-ya'] Basin.
FAST MOTION OF LAND CLEARING
When civilization invades, bears are driven out. Hunting was once the problem. Now the problem is the alarming rate of land clearing.
The removal of bottom land hardwood forests for industry, agriculture, and pulpwood farms has been catastrophic to Black Bears in the South.
Today, they inhabit less than twentyfive percent of their former range.
CLOSE-UP OF BEEHIVE
This beehive is swarming because it has two queens. One queen will soon leave to establish another hive. The passion of bears for honey is no myth. This one would love to stick its nose into the main hive.
BEAR EATING HONEY
Even though a group of bees have left and are swarming around the second bee, there could still be half a million bees remaining in a honey tree this size. So the bear approaches cautiously. It finds a spot where it can sneak a taste unnoticed. The bear will eat a few bees and larva, along with whatever honey it can find.
But only a very hungry bear dives right in and tears open a large hive. Their long fur offers some protection, but they can still be stung in the eyes or on their sensitive noses.
A bear's natural tendency to eat honey and insects makes for some serious bear, bee-keeper problems. Unfortunately, in most areas where the bear is still found, bee-keeping is big business. Raids on bee yards can be reduced by bear-proof electric fences.
This beekeeper uses smoke to stun the bees. I don't know how he manages without gloves, but I do know that he's on the right track when it comes to bears. His electric fence will keep bears out and honey production up.
TRANSITION BACK TO BASIN
Back in the basin, my search continues.
The waters of half a continent flow into southern Louisiana. In this rich alluvial soil, vegetation engulfs everything. Towering above, the Cypress has wood very resistant to rot. Because the soggy soil offers little support, Cypresses are broad at their base. And they are home to many unseen eyes.
An area like this where I can walk without sinking is called "hard bottom". The water is getting shallower, so there should be an island around here somewhere, a good place to look, because bears are attracted to higher, drier ground.
MARTY WALKING IN THE SHALLOWS
Floating green on the surface is a delicate carpet of duckweed, one of the world's smallest flowering plants.
Lots of Green Tree Frogs, but no bear.
Finally, a track! A bear's front paw is not that much like a human hand. But their hind feet are quite similar to ours. Bears walk 'plantigrade', like we do, meaning with their heels on the ground.
I come across another unusual animal, the Armadillo. It's the only living mammal with a bony shell.
I'm looking for a 'bear tree,' a tree with claw marks. An overturned log or a dug up ant hill would also be welcome bear signs.
MARTY FINDS ALLIGATOR SKULL
But this Alligator skull is just as interesting. The American Alligator is the largest of our reptiles. The small craters in its skull keep the head from growing too heavy. Its various-sized teeth are only for seizing and holding prey, not for chewing. But, as with bears and just about everything else, their danger to humans is exaggerated.
Finally here's a solid clue: a bear tunnel.
Bears are creatures of habit, they follow the same routes on well-established trails. When they enter thickets, they create tunnels like this one.
BOBCAT / DIAMOND-BACKED WATER SNAKE
The trail takes me to a Bobcat, using a hard cypress trunk to sharpen its claws. The Bobcat is also shy and solitary and is nearly as rare in the swamp as the Black Bear.
This Diamond-backed Water Snake is well camouflaged. The Bobcat walked right past the motionless snake but as the cat continues its search, the snake moves.
The aggressive Diamond-back, though not poisonous, often gets mistaken for the deadly Cottonmouth.
Bobcats normally feed on birds, mice and rabbit-sized animals, and even though a less defensive snake could also be a meal, this looks like play. The water snake takes refuge by disappearing under the duckweed. The Bobcat seems confused and is still cautious. That "dangerous" snake could still be close by.
YELLOWED-CROWNED NIGHT HERON / PAINTED BUNTING
I love the bird life here. A Yellow Crowned Night Heron is a familiar sight. Less common, the male Painted Bunting is one of our most beautiful birds.
When the sky clouds over, the frogs start calling. As one group stops, another starts they seem to be traveling around me in circles. But as I move into this open area, an eerie silence descends.
MARTY SPOTS A BEAR
A Bear! It's basically the same bear I've seen in the Appalachians, Ozarks and Rockies, but it's exciting to see one here where it's so rare.
Although it may look a little clumsy, the Bear is one of the strongest and fastest animals on earth. It could be half a mile away by now. I just hope I can find it again.
A bear tree! This one has only claw marks. Often bears bite off strips of bark, let the tree bleed a day or two and return to rub themselves in the oozing sap, a natural insect repellent. This tree tells me I'm finally in the heart of the Bear's home range.
And the setting sun tells me it's time to set up camp.
PREVIEWS OF SWAMP BEAR PART TWO
Next time, we're going to continue our search through the Atchafalaya ['chafaLIEya'] Basin of Louisiana. We'll keep tracking the elusive Swamp Bear to see how they live and to learn more about their habits, playful and otherwise.
As we follow a trail of clues that will take us deeper and deeper into this mysterious realm, we'll get a first-hand lesson about the varied diet of bears, especially their love for Blackberries. In the process we'll meet some of the other abundant swamp creatures small, smooth and friendly, large, rough, and not so friendly, and some that are downright deadly.
As Summer arrives and the high water recedes, the swamp will begin drying up. We'll try to locate a pool full of stranded Catfish, a perfect place for a bear to come to feed.
Join me then as we get to know this character which William Faulkner portrayed as the epitome of the Old Wilderness a living legend, "THE SWAMP BEAR".
I'm Marty Stouffer. Until next time, enjoy our WILD AMERICA.